By Laurel A. Rockefeller
©2017 Laurel A. Rockefeller. All rights reserved.
Medieval Queens is a
work of narrative history based on events in the lives of Chinese
Empress Wu Zetian, Welsh Princess Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, and
Empress Matilda of England constructed using primary and secondary
historical sources, commentary, and research.
Consulted sources appear
at the end of this book. Interpretation of source material is at the
author’s discretion and utilized within the scope of the author’s
imagination, including names, events, and historical details.
Where applicable, Pinyin Romanization is
used exclusively in the text of this book. Names using other
Romanization systems such as Wade-Giles were converted into pinyin
for consistency and accurate pronunciation of Chinese words.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
One: Cai Ren
Three: Real Power
FERCH GRUFFYDD, THE WARRIOR PRINCESS OF DEHEUBARTH
Reading And Bibliography
MATILDA OF ENGLAND
Matilda Family Tree
One: Princess Of England
Two: Holy Roman Empress
Three: The Death Of Princes
Four: Anarchy And Civil War
In Latin And Their Translations
Reading And Bibliography
EMPRESS WU ZETIAN
“Miss? Miss, where do you think you are going?” asked the
British soldier gruffly, grabbing the arm of the well-dressed
teenaged girl walking down Dongjiaomin
Lane, her dark brown hair contrasting against her ruby-encrusted hair
“Hands off me, barbarian!” snarled Hua-Lin with fire in her green
eyes. “I am no coolie, no slave! Who do you think you are
grabbing me as if I were some animal?”
Three soldiers joined the first soldier, surrounding Hua-Lin
menacingly. Closing in close to her body, they fondled the silk of
her finely embroidered Manchu gown, its design marking her as a
great-granddaughter of the Qianlong Emperor. Laughing, the youngest
of the soldiers unbuttoned two of the buttons over her chest securing
her gown together while the others pinned her arms behind her back,
his intent only too clear to the noble Hua-Lin, “May the ravens and
falcons of Abka Hehe devour your heart!”
As if an answer to her prayer, a British captain strode up behind the
gang barking authoritatively, “Why you pathetic excuse for a
soldier! You dare call yourself Englishmen! Be gone with you and
confine yourself to barracks until further notice!”
“Sir! Yes sir!” saluted the gang of soldiers in unison.
“DISMISSED!” ordered the captain. As the gang marched off to
their barracks, the captain knelt before Hua-Lin, re-buttoning her
gown chivalrously, “I beg your pardon and forgiveness my lady!”
“You know who or at least what I am?”
“Only a relative of the emperor is allowed to wear that shade of
yellow,” observed the captain.
“My grandmother was a daughter of the Qianlong Emperor,”
“What is your name, if I may ask?”
“Hua-Lin. It means flowering forest in your language. I know it
is not a proper Manchu name; my father was Chinese. He respected
Manchu culture, of course, but his spiritual path was Buddhist; the
old ways of my mother’s people were unknown to him. I was born
here in Beijing, but raised in a village in protected tribal lands.
There I learned the culture and traditions of the Manchu people. My
father was rarely home; he worked for the government before the Arrow
War took his life.”
“What a beautiful story, Hua-Lin – if I may address you as such?”
“After preserving my honour – yes you may. Do you have a name as
“Mann, Richard James Mann. If your ladyship prefers, Richard is
acceptable – though not to those blokes.”
“Where are you from?”
“Colchester; it’s an ancient town off in the southeast of
England. Perhaps not unlike Beijing itself,” offered Captain Mann
gently. “About eighteen hundred years ago a great queen waged a war
of independence against the forces of the Roman empire who – I
suppose much like my own British Empire has in both India and now
China – sought to colonize and conquer our island of Britannia,”
“What happened? Was she successful? Did she free your people?”
“No – no, she failed. She was lured into a trap by the Roman
governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus; rather than become a trophy of war
she and her daughters committed suicide. To protect them, her people
cremated their remains to deny the Romans complete victory,”
recalled Richard, the significance of Boudicca’s story hitting him
in light of the Treaties of Tianjin which forced the Qing dynasty
into giving Britain the very legation that brought him and his
comrades in arms to Beijing.
“So she failed.”
“Some may say. But her legend was never forgotten. Today we
remember her as a great heroine.”
“Not unlike Wu Zetian was,” remarked Hua-Lin.
“Empress Wu Zetian, the only woman to ever rule in her own right
over the Chinese. She declared her own dynasty – the Zhou dynasty
– which of course did not work out. But in her lifetime learning
flourished, the arts flourished, and Han Chinese women regained many
of their civil liberties,” prefaced Hua-Lin.
“Sounds like quite a woman – like present company,” laughed
Richard amiably. “I would really like to hear more.”
“My home is over there,” motioned Hua-Lin, pointing in the
direction of the British Legation.
“On the other side of the British Legation?”
“Legation! British officers now sleep in the same room where I was
“I am only a captain, my lady. I cannot return your home to your
family. I do not have that kind of power. But I can take you to my
humble home – if you will trust me – and from there, to your
current home if you like,” offered Captain Mann. “I was actually
about ready to head for home for tea. Will you join me and tell me
about this Empress Wu Zetian?”
Hua-Lin took Captain Mann’s offered arm politely, “With
Chapter One: Cai Ren
Wu Zhao dipped her brush pen into the murky black inkwell in front of
her, an imprint lined practice page in front of her. Rolling the
brush against the lip of the inkwell to refine its point, she counted
her strokes carefully as she practiced the character “lǐ” 礼
meaning “propriety,” writing the character
repeatedly until it filled up the first line. Looking up at her tutor
reading the “Analects of Confucius,” the thirteen-year old
chancellor’s daughter raised her voice, “Laoshi, why is propriety
important for women?”
“Propriety in speech protects the family’s honour, especially
when it comes to women,” answered her twenty-five-year-old teacher.
“Your father Chancellor Wu Shihuo wants you to fully understand
all four virtues of women under the teachings of Confucius before he
finds you an honourable match.”
“An honourable match? Why all this focus on marriage and
housekeeping skills? I would much rather read than spin, weave, or
sew!” declared Zhao assertively.
Her tutor stood up harshly, closing his book with a thump, “Your
father indulges you far more than is proper! You think even the
daughters of the emperor are given such an education? Education is
for men, not women!”
Zhao eyed him coolly, “And yet you accepted my father’s
commission to teach me. Interesting is it not?”
“Wealthy men like your father can afford eccentricities like this.
He pays me well.”
“Ah! But will he still pay you upon learning you are too
prejudiced to do your duty?” countered Zhao shrewdly.
Wu Zhao’s tutor shifted the subject slightly, “Duty? It is your
duty to write “li” until I tell you to stop. How many times have
you written it just now?”
Zhao counted, “yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qiu, ba, jiu. Nine!”
“Keep writing until you have written it thirty times,” commanded
Zhao acquiesced as she dipped her pen back into the ink, “Shi,
“You asked to see me, Baba?” asked Wu Zhao as she knelt to sit at
the feet of her father by the fire, her eyes downcast respectfully.
Chancellor Wu Shihuo pushed up the long voluminous sleeves of his
coat before laying his hands-on top of her head, “Yes, baobei.”
Zhao met his eyes, “What is it, Father?”
“I have both good news and bad news for you at the same time. Come
spring, you will be leaving here for Chang An.”
“The imperial capital city?”
“You know why I think. Of all my sons and daughters, you are the
brightest, the most learned. Your sisters are more than happy to sit
with a needle; you are ever restless if any dares put needle,
spindle, or loom anywhere near you!” smiled Chancellor Wu.
“You’ve made a match for me, haven’t you?” frowned Wu Zhao.
Zhao sighed, using her mental discipline to conceal her irritation
and disappointment, “Who?”
“Emperor Taizong. You are to be one of his cai ren, a low-ranking
concubine. Forgive me, it was the best I could do. When my peers
learned of your … peculiar habits, I am afraid none of them wanted
you for their sons.”
“Any man who cannot handle a woman of intelligence and education is
not worth my time – let alone my body!” declared Wu Zhao proudly.
“My daughter, do you know how disrespectful that sounds?”
“Disrespectful to whom? A long dead politician whose only interest
was power? Why do we care about these books, these Analects anyway?
It’s pure propaganda! Sexist propaganda no less! We call the
peoples north of the Great Wall savages, but how can this be so?
They have women leading them – secular and religious women – and
pray to goddesses and gods both! Maybe we Han are the savages and
the northern peoples are the civilized ones!”
“That is treason, Zhao!” corrected the chancellor.
“And impropriety because I am a young woman!”
“Yes,” agreed Wu Shihuo. “Which is why it is best you serve
the emperor as cai ren. Surely you cannot make any trouble among the
multitudes of women belonging to him.”
Zhao smirked, “Don’t bet on it!”
Chancellor Wu stood up, offering his hand to his daughter to help her
rise as well, “Well at least as cai ren you are unlikely to ever
see the emperor or come to his bed. That should limit your
Zhao shook her head as her father strode out of the room, muttering
quietly, “We shall see!”
Spring came to Wenshui County in Shanxi province far too quickly for
Wu Zhao who herself had never before travelled the one thousand one
hundred eight Chinese li between her home and the imperial palace, a
distance of three hundred seventy miles. After months of blissful
forgetfulness regarding the arranged marriage, Wu Zhao found herself
confronted with its reality as her father’s servants inevitably
packed two trunks filled with her most prized possessions and placed
them in a wagon along with the chancellor’s gifts to the emperor.
Finally, the day arrived with little ceremony or fanfare. Dutifully
she boarded the carriage, never to return home again.
Two weeks later Wu Zhao’s carriage passed through an ornately
carved wooden gate set among Chang An’s thick earthen work walls.
Following the carefully aligned grid of city streets, the carriage
driver steadily drove through the entire capital city, the northern
wall of Chang An forming the southern wall of its Imperial City.
Pinning back the silk curtains to her carriage, Zhao observed the
sights, smells, and sounds of the bustling capital. Nowhere in the
world held such a mix of cultures, religions, and products for sale,
not even in Constantinople, capital of what remained of the formerly
glorious Roman Empire.
As the carriage pulled through Chang An’s northern gate into the
Imperial City, the keen minded teenager noted the sounds of music and
women’s voices which were sometimes melodic and sometimes very
Finally, the carriage stopped. Five eunuchs surrounded her carriage
as another surrounded the wagon from home carrying her father’s
gifts to the emperor. With dizzying efficiency, she found her
personal belongings and her father’s gifts whisked away with barely
a sound as a senior eunuch looking older than her father helped her
step down, “This way, my lady!” Uncertain what protocol said to
do, she followed the eunuch to what looked like some sort of simple
bedroom shared with four other women. The eunuch took her to the
empty bed, her trunks already stowed beneath, “This is your home
“When do I appear before the Son of Heaven?” asked Wu Zhao
“You do not,” replied the senior eunuch.
“I do not understand. How can I be his concubine and yet not meet
him?” queried Wu Zhao intelligently.
The eunuch laughed, “You are only cai ren, his consort-in-ordinary.
You are not worthy of his divine and holy presence!”
“Then what am I worthy of?”
“Doing what you are told!”
“By whom? Who is my master if not the Son of Heaven?”
“Empress Zhangsun, of course! She is mistress of all that is here!
After her, you shall obey Consorts Xu Hui, Yang, Yin, Yan, and Wei
as they command,” proclaimed the eunuch.
“And what shall I call you?”
“I am a eunuch. I have no name,” replied the eunuch simply.
“Your belongings are here. Take your time to acquaint yourself
with where you are and those living with you. Expect no help from
anyone. Come when you are called.” With the slightest of bow of
his head to acknowledge her, the eunuch left her alone.
As soon as he was out of sight, Zhao pulled out one of her trunks.
Opening it, she located her copy of “Explaining and Analysing
Characters,” the standard Chinese character dictionary. Clutching
the heavy book to her heart, she closed the trunk, replaced it under
her bed, and then sat upon her bed to read.
“Wu Zhao! Wu Zhao!” called the senior eunuch whose gruff welcome
Wu Zhao never forgot.
Sitting on a comfortable cushion and with a lap desk comfortably over
her, Wu Zhao practiced her calligraphy, intentionally ignoring the
eunuch until his shadow covered her desk. Zhao looked up at him,
“The Son of Heaven calls you into court,” barked the eunuch.
Wu Zhao put down her pen, “Did he say why?”
“One does not question the Son of Heaven.”
“Since you are not his majesty, my question still stands.”
“I do not know why; my job is to obey,” growled the eunuch.
Wu Zhao set her desk off to the side so she could rise, meeting his
eyes as she did so, “Very well. Take me to him.”
The senior eunuch led Wu Zhao past several official buildings until
they reached the emperor’s own private apartment. Surprised, Zhao
wondered if the emperor now expected her to serve him with wifely
duties, something she found herself now wholly unprepared to do after
months of assertions from others that she would never so much as meet
At a desk sat the Taizong emperor clad in imperial yellow, his
massive outer coat heavily embroidered with blue Chinese dragons. Ten
paces from where the emperor sat, both the eunuch and Wu Zhao
kowtowed before him, their heads reverentially touching the wooden
floor. Taizong stood up, “You may sit.” Wu Zhao obeyed, raising
her head and back to a comfortable sitting position, but keeping her
eyes lowered respectfully. Taizong motioned to the eunuch, “Thank
you for bringing her; you may go!” Obediently, the eunuch
slithered out of the royal presence while Taizong focused on Zhao,
“You are Chancellor Wu Shihuo’s daughter?”
“You are well educated I am told.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Stories have reached me that you are wholly unsuitable to be my
cai ren. Have you heard them?”
“What say you about them? Speak plainly.”
“I say that it is for the Son of Heaven to best decide how I may
best serve him. If it is his will to quicken me with his son, then
so be it. But if I may serve in another way, I am pleased to offer
my life and my skills to him,” offered Wu Zhao.
“I heard a story that you read the dictionary every day. Is that
“One never knows when one may need to know how to write a certain
word precisely. I study that I may serve you.”
“Then serve me.”
“How, Your Majesty?”
“My court is filled with politicians I do not trust, most of them
after power or wealth. I cannot trust them to render my rulings
accurately. I need an aide, someone I can trust to write my words as
I speak them – not as they would twist them for selfish motives.
Will you serve me in this way?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“May I ask one other thing of you?”
“Always, Your Majesty.”
“Rise and let me see you.” Wu Zhao complied, breaking protocol
and meeting his eyes. Emperor Taizong walked around her to take a
better look at her, “You are beautiful! Therefore, I name you Mei
Niang: charming and lovely. Serve me Mei. I command it.”
“As you wish, so it shall be.”
“Thank you – now sit here and take my pen. I require your help
in writing to your father,” beckoned the emperor, showing Mei Niang
his work in progress.
Eleven years passed. Almost every day Wu Zhao rose early and worked
past sunset as the emperor’s favourite and most trusted secretary,
helping him craft many of his reforms like the restructuring of
Chinese clans based on merit. Though the emperor continued to call
her by the nickname “Mei” and remained mindful that he could
exercise his rights as her husband at any time, Taizong himself felt
far too close to Mei personally and professionally to change their
relationship, preferring instead to simply smile at her when he
observed her beauty or when she made a cunning political argument
while working together.
“Come here, Mei,” beckoned the emperor.
Summoned, Wu Zhao bowed her forehead to the floor once, and then rose
to stand next to him, “How many I be of service?”
“I want your input on this battle plan I’m finalizing. Do you
think we can defeat the Goguryeo?”
Zhao took the reports from the emperor’s hands and skimmed them,
“Maybe – but not easily. I honestly cannot tell based on this
intelligence if we can make any progress against them. Our people
are war-weary, Your Majesty. Another foreign war – I just do not
know if we can be victorious.” Taizong coughed heavily, a look of
fatigue in his eyes. Wu Zhao studied him, “Are you well, Your
Taizong met her eyes, “No. I should stay in bed today, but I fear
if I do so the palace gossip will be all over it and some quack of a
healer will give me mercury to drink or some foolish thing they think
will help me.” Wu Zhao tried to conceal her worry – and her
disregard for the palace physicians but her face said everything.
“What is that supposed to mean, Mei? I am fifty-one years old, you
“You are still young,” asserted Wu Zhao.
“I was quite the warrior in my youth, you know. Before you came
here to the palace I forced my father to abdicate the throne.”
“Is it true you killed two of your brothers in order to become your
“I did. Oh, I know it must sound terrible to you, but it was the
only way to become emperor.”
“You have been a good emperor, Your Majesty, a true champion of the
common person – woman and man both. My tutor thought that I was
arrogant and far too masculine to ever make anything of myself.”
“Because you prefer to debate public policy with me instead of
debating which shade of blue to use on a cloud in a tapestry?”
Zhao smiled, “Yes! Great example, isn’t it?”
“Well, I am a Buddhist you know!”
“And a patron of a version of that strange religion from the west.
What do you call it?”
“Christianity. Yes. Not the Roman style of course, but one of the
forms popular in the remaining Byzantium Empire. There is a Roman
Catholic church here in Chang An, but mostly traders from the west
attend its services. This literal trinity idea simply makes no sense
to us – nor should it I suppose.”
“You are quite remarkable – in your ideas, your policies your –
“– my choosing of one of my cai ren to be my secretary and aide?”
“Yes, that too!”
“I know I will die soon, Mei. I want to tell you something though
before I relent and head to my bed, perhaps for the last time.”
“What is it?”
“I never touched you as your husband. But it was not out of any
deficit on your part. Rather it was that I have always respected you
far too much to let myself summon you.”
“I do not understand.”
“Then let me speak plainly. There is little time left to speak.
When I am a husband, I behave – differently – more selfish. It is
a very one-sided matter for me; I do not think about her when we’re
together. You, however, I honour and respect. The idea of treating
you like that is unthinkable. You deserve love, Mei. I cannot offer
you romantic love – only the esteem I feel for you as my aide and
my friend. I suppose in that way I love you best.”
“May I speak plainly then, Your Majesty?”
“You are kind, generous, and have always ruled wisely and well. We
have worked together drafting the right words for your policies,
after all. But never once have you mistreated me nor disrespected
me. I wish to thank you for that, for giving me a far better life
here than I could have asked for.”
Emperor Taizong rose weakly, “You are dismissed from my service,
Mei Niang. May your life after my passing be forever happy.” Wu
Zhao put her forehead to the hand still holding hers respectfully.
Taizong caressed her face with his other hand before releasing her.
Zhao turned, looking upon the Son of Heaven before leaving. She
would never see him again.
Chapter Two: Zhaoyi
Three days later, the imperial city heralded Emperor Taizong’s son
Li Dan as his successor. Though officially in charge, Li Dan
observed a proper period of official mourning before attending to the
details of his coronation as the new “Gaozong” emperor.
While the Gaozong publicly grieved and the public honoured Taizong
with his grand state funeral, Buddhist nunneries across China readied
themselves to receive their share of Taizong’s concubines. Eunuchs
laboured furiously to pack the belongings of each concubine, taking
great care to label everything to ensure the correct trunks were sent
to the correct nunneries.
As preparations finalized across the women’s quarters, Gaozong
strolled almost unmarked among the chaos, allegedly to supervise the
progress. From inside her room, Wu Zhao silently packed mementos of
her years of service to Emperor Taizong, including a small jade
necklace given to her for her twentieth birthday. Less trusting of
the eunuchs today than she was even upon her arrival to the imperial
city eleven years ago, she carefully fastened the necklace,
positioning it to frame her collarbone. Into her hair she set
another gift from the Son of Heaven: a jade and pearl comb made of
carved ivory. Gaozong watched her reverence towards the gifts, “Did
my father give those to you?”
Startled, Wu fell to her knees, “Your Majesty! I did not know you
“No need to bow. I am not here as your lord and master, but the
young man you used to know,” corrected the emperor. “You were
very close to the Son of Heaven, weren’t you?”
“Not in the way the others were.”
“Yes, I know. You still have never been close to a man. More the
pity the law requires you spend your life in a nunnery.”
“I am a devout Buddhist, Your Majesty. This is no hardship to me.
I would far rather spend my life in prayer than suffer the cruelty
most women must endure.”
“Do you ever wish to be more than just a cai ren, Mei Niang?”
“I am a scholar used to working in the government. I was never
‘just’ a cai ren,” corrected Zhao.
“What do you think of the reforms my father made?” asked Gaozong,
his mind now curious about Wu Zhao’s political experience.
“He did not go far enough. I am grateful he employed women in the
government – but we are far from truly equal.”
“What if you served in my government, what would you do?”
“I think it would be difficult for me to serve you from the nunnery
in Wenshui county.”
“What if you did not have to stay there? What would you do?”
“I would expand upon the start made by your father. I would do
more to stop corruption and family-based pathways to power, to make
government service about who can best do each job,” declared Wu
Gaozong smiled, “I like it! What would you think if I came to
Wenshui to speak further with you?”
“You are the emperor.”
Gaozong laughed, “And so I am.”
Six months later bells tolled in the Wenshui nunnery located just
five miles from the house where Wu Shihuo still lived with Wu Zhao’s
younger brothers and sisters. The road thundered as the imperial
retinue approached Wu Shihuo’s home. Chancellor Wu Shihuo bowed
deeply as Emperor Gaozong dismounted from his horse, “Your Majesty!
An unexpected visit!”
“Is your daughter still in the nearby nunnery?” asked the
“Yes, she is. I visited her a month ago,” answered Chancellor
“Has she spoken of her time serving my late father?”
“No, Your Majesty. But then I would not expect her to do so. It
would not be proper for her to acknowledge to my face that she held
the greater power over matters of state.”
“No, no I suppose not.”
“How fares Your Majesty since his coronation?”
“Your daughter was a light to the inner court. I suffer from the
lack of that light. Therefore, I shall journey to the Wenshui
nunnery in the morning, availing myself tonight of your hospitality.”
“I live to serve Your Majesty. My home is yours for as long as you
desire to grace us with your divine light!” bowed Chancellor Wu.
The next morning Emperor Gaozong and his retinue slipped quietly
through the mountains. As they reached the nunnery they heard the
quiet footsteps of twenty nuns walking together after their morning
meditation. Without ceremony the emperor slipped between two trees
to watch the red-clad nuns before pulling one quickly from the end of
the line. Wu Zhao recognized him at once and tried to kowtow.
Gaozong stopped her with his touch, a nod of his head signalling for
her to come with him.
Finding a secluded spot, Gaozong sat her down on a nearby bench.
Wonder filled Zhao’s eyes, “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you.”
“Why do you think?”
“I do not dare guess or second guess the Son of Heaven.”
“Yes, you do!” smiled Gaozong. “That is perhaps why I am here.
You do not belong in a nunnery. That you can hardly refute, even if
protocol permitted it.”
“I think you have me at a disadvantage. Clearly your father and I
were not nearly as alone as I perceived when we were engaged in
affairs of state.”
Gaozong laughed, “Alone? In the imperial city? That will never
happen!” Gaozong touched the side of her face, “They shaved your
“Hair is a woman’s vanity. No nun must ever think she is
“You are beautiful, Mei Niang—or shall I call you Zhao?”
“Every time I hear the name ‘Mei Niang’ I think of your
“Then I shall call you Zhao instead. May I ask you a personal
“You are the emperor.”
“Did my father ever touch you as a husband touches his wife or
“No—he said he respected me too much for my mind to indulge
himself thusly. Do not get me wrong; I think he was attracted to me.
But he respected me and I respected him.”
“And would you respect me if I told you that I was always jealous
of him for possessing you? What would you say if I said that I have
dreamed of you, yearned for you, thought about you in the night when
I was with my empress and my concubines? Not having you at the
palace is a torment. I must have you—if you will consent to having
“I live to obey.”
“I do not want your obedience—not like the way they do. I want
far more of you than that. I want nothing less than mind, body, and
soul. So, I ask you: will you have me?”
Zhao met his eyes, “Yes.” Pleased the emperor kissed her
tentatively, then passionately after feeling her kiss him in return.
Four years passed. Wu Zhao, now holding the rank of zhaoyi, a
second-grade concubine walked confidently through the women’s
quarters to her own private apartment, her mind whirling romantically
with memories of the night before in the emperor’s bed. Right
before she reached the red door Empress Wang suddenly moved to block
her path, “Still scheming, Wu Zhao?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about. I was just returning
to check on my sons and see if they are hungry,” smiled Wu Zhao.
“So you feel secure in your position, do you?”
“Why should I not? I have two sons; you have none. And…I do
believe I am pregnant once more! Obviously, the emperor prefers me
in bed over you!”
“You should still be in the nunnery! It is incest for you to go to
“That decision is the emperor’s—not yours,” reminded Zhao
“You broke your vows even in the nunnery!” accused Empress Wang.
“If you are saying I lured the Son of Heaven into my bed, I assure
you nothing of the sort happened. Indeed, I was never touched by
anyone until two years ago when he recalled me from Wenshui and into
“You are a liar!”
“If I am—and I am not—then at least I am quickly becoming the
emperor’s favourite. Now if you will kindly excuse me, I have my
sons to care for.” Growling Empress Wang stepped aside, allowing
Wu Zhao to pass. As she crossed the threshold Wu Zhao turned back
towards her, “Do not think your position is too secure, Empress
Wang. A zhaoyi with healthy sons is always favoured over a barren
Six months later Wu Zhao delivered her child, a healthy princess for
whom she had not yet chosen a name. After putting her daughter down
for a nap, Wu sat down for a simple luncheon of rice, chicken, hot
and sour soup, and pork dumplings. A dessert of sweetened red bean
paste surrounded by sticky white rice soaked in honey delighted her
palate. Feeling happy and full, Zhao sang as she walked back home.
A shadowy figure darted quickly out of Wu Zhao’s apartment, raising
the hairs on Zhao’s arms. Instinctively she ran inside to find her
daughter dead in a basin of water. Zhao screamed hysterically as she
picked up the new-born. Wailing and weeping she rocked the child in
her arms as if she could somehow bring the child back to life.
Alerted by the cries, Empress Wang stepped into Zhao’s apartment.
Fury filled Zhao’s eyes, “YOU! YOU DID THIS!”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” answered Wang
“Do not play innocent with me! You murdered her!”
“You’re mad! Why would I do that? I have nothing to gain by
killing her. Your sons, yes, but not this baby,” slithered Empress
Wang. “I think you killed her so you can accuse me of murder. You
want to be empress, I know you do! Being third in the palace is not
good enough for you, is it? Not after all the power you tasted as
Emperor Taizong’s secretary. Power is all you care about, Zhao. I
do not think you care whose body you have to walk over to gain
“Really? You think I am that ambitious?” scoffed Wu Zhao.
“Regardless you shall become empress only over my dead body,”
challenged Empress Wang as she left.
Wu Zhao watched her leave, “If you insist….”
“You summoned me?” asked Wu Zhao as she finished kowtowing to the
Son of Heaven in his throne room.
Emperor Gaozong motioned for her to rise and approach him, “In
light of Empress Wang and Consort Xiao’s clear guilt in the murder
of your daughter I have decided to depose them and put them in
prison. I therefore confer on you the title of Empress.”
Empress Wu kissed him, “You are too kind to me.”
“I am only doing what I feel is right by you.”
“And what of our sons? Will you make one of them your heir over
Empress Wang’s cousin Li Zhong?”
“I am not prepared to do that while she lives.”
“But surely an heir of your own body is better than one who is
“You are very persuasive Zhao but I cannot give this to you.”
“I see,” answered Zhao disappointedly.
“Would coming to my bed tonight make up for that at least a little?
You know I love you.” Pretending the offer pleased her, Zhao
kissed him before bowing and leaving him to wander the palace.
Five minutes later as she meandered near a decorative pond filled
with ornamental fish she spotted the old eunuch who had made her life
so difficult when she was cai ren. He bowed as she reached him,
“Congratulations, Empress Wu.”
“Are you pleased or annoyed at my elevation?”
“You are bright, educated, and head-strong. You are so different
from the others. You served Emperor Taizong well. That is far more
than I’ve seen from all the women I’ve seen in the imperial city
across my life.”
“You have been in service here for many long years.”
“Yes. It is almost time for me to retire.”
“May I ask one final service of you then?”
“The prisoners—Empress Wang and Consort Xiao—I want them dead.”
“Are you certain that is wise?”
“Buddha might not smile on you for that.”
“Buddha is a myth created to control the people. I know but one
world and one life and that is the one we are living. If either of
the prisoners continue to live I have little doubt I will be dead
soon after. It is them or me. I choose me.”
The eunuch smiled, “I understand completely. Consider it done.
All I ask is that you guarantee nothing interferes with my departure
“I give you my word!” smiled Empress Wu.
Chapter Three: Real Power
“Your Majesty! Your Majesty,” cried a twenty-year-old eunuch as
he ran through the imperial city.
Empress Wu stopped and turned towards him, “What is it?”
“You must come quickly! The emperor’s physician has been
“I do not know—but the emperor is calling for you!”
“Lead the way!”
Taking her hand, the eunuch led Empress Wu to the emperor’s bed
chamber. The physician looked at her as she entered, “Empress Wu?”
“Yes. What is wrong?”
“Will he live?”
“Only Buddha can say.”
“I do not care what Buddha says; you are a man of science; what
does your training say?”
“I think he will live, but he will not be the same.”
“Will he walk again?”
“Walk, yes after some bed rest. But speaking or understanding
others well enough to govern? I do not think so”
“I can govern.”
“Would not someone else be more suited?” questioned the
“I served as his father’s secretary, my lord. I have experience
in these matters.”
“But you are a woman!”
“How can you tell?” asked Empress Wu sarcastically. “I am the
best candidate and I am here.” Empress Wu looked into Gaozong’s
eyes, “Do I have your blessing in this, my love?”
Emperor Gaozong stammered, struggling to speak, “Y-y-you h-h-help
“May I govern on your behalf?”
“Shi!” affirmed the emperor.
Empress Wu turned to the physician, “You heard it from him. I
speak for him now.”
Several months later the Gaozong Emperor recovered from his stroke
yet remained weak physically. A series of illnesses followed which
allowed Empress Wu to retain much of her power and authority as the
Gaozong continued to depend on her, especially in times of stress.
Finally, on the twenty third of December six hundred eighty-three by
the reckoning of the calendar in the West, Gaozong died. Gathering
together, the nobles and highest ranking public servants elected
Empress Wu’s third son Li Xian was elected to succeed him as the
Zhongzong Emperor. Knowing her sons well and realizing such an
election meant the end to her power, Empress Wu paced her apartment
furiously. As December yielded to January and the start of Chinese
New Year festivities, Empress Wu realized what she needed to do:
replace one son with another on the throne.
The year of the monkey arrived noisily and with much celebration and
fanfare. From Empress Wu’s office the sounds of firecrackers from
both within the imperial palace and from the imperial city beyond its
gates seemed to sing in a never-ending round of sometimes soft and
sometimes deafening rolling and often staccato thunder. Bam b-b-bam
bam. Bam bam bam sang the fireworks as children lit massive strings
of firecrackers. Nearer to her paraded musicians playing flutes, er
hu, yue qin, and almost every other portable instrument available to
them. Wu caressed her throbbing temple. As much as she enjoyed the
noise and celebration of the New Year personally too much of it
brought on stabbing and intense headaches. Closing her eyes, she
took a deep breath, trying to control the pain and clear her blurry
vision. Opening her eyes once more she studied the latest reports
detailing the success of her programs to increase agriculture
production through improved technology and more efficient farming
techniques. A criticism of her policy of cutting military spending
written by a recently promoted official from Luoyang sat among the
cluttered piles, his name matching one of the many benefiting from
her efforts to fight corruption through a fairer civil service
examination system. Pride flashed through Wu’s heart: as good and
kind as the Gaozong was he would never have tolerated such open
dissent and criticism.
An aide entered quietly, a massive and carefully printed book
dominating over her petite frame, “My lady the team of scholars you
paid to collect the histories of our greatest matriarchs has
completed the work.”
Wu Zhao rose and took the book from her arms, balancing the heavy
tome easily as she opened it upon her desk, “’Liè
nǚ chuán, the Biographies of Famous Women’” Flipping
through its crisp pages the empress scanned the work, checking its
quality. After two minutes, she looked up at her aide, “This is
well done. I am very pleased. Send my thanks to each of the scholars
who made this possible and invite them to celebrate the new year at
the official banquet later this week.”
“Yes, my lady,” bowed her aide.
“One more thing –“
“Tell the printer to prepare copies of this for each of our
esteemed guests, including the ones who speak publicly against me.
This is a great work and must be celebrated.”
“Yes, my lady!” acknowledged her aide as she bowed once more and
Three days later the Imperial City glittered as Emperor Zhongzong
and his mother Dowager Empress Wu Zhao hosted the grandest and most
spectacular of the Chinese New Year festivities. Trained monkeys
performed tricks in homage to the Year of the Monkey. Pairs of
Derbyan parakeets harvested from the rain forests of southern Shaanxi
province in payment of taxes flew gracefully through imperial
aviaries. Opera performers from across China dazzled guests with
their acrobatics and music. Firecrackers thundered as lion dances
delighted guests. As darkness fell and the sky lit up with
fireworks, Dowager Empress Wu slipped away quietly to the imperial
ancestral temple. An armoured soldier wearing a heavy coat of plate
mail painted black to conceal his whereabouts emerged from the
shadows. Empress Wu smiled as she recognized him, “Thank you for
meeting me here.”
The soldier fell to his knees respectfully, “I live to serve.”
“Did you find the information I asked for?”
“Yes. You were right about the Son of Heaven.”
“I did not approve of Li Xian’s elevation to the dragon throne as
the Zhongzong emperor. He is far too head strong and his empress
holds too much influence over him. Surely once the celebrations end
she will have me banished from the Imperial City so she may rule
China through his bed chamber,” predicted Empress Wu. “I will
NOT be banished! Not again! When I was young and a mere cai ren I
did not mind it so much, despite the taste of power I enjoyed as
Taizong’s secretary. But now I have sons of my own and ruled in
Gaozong’s name I find the idea of banishment unthinkable. I shall
not yield to any man. I shall not give up my place of power. You
will see to it that Zhongzong steps down in favour of his younger
brother Li Dan. Li Dan loves me and defers to me in all things. And
why should he not? He is only twenty-two; barely more than a boy. I
can control him; he will obey me if I wish.”
“As you wish, so shall it be done. Before the next full moon rises
to its zenith we shall have a new emperor.”
“Mother, I do not see what is the point of all these policies? Why
should not the wealthy hold more power in government posts than the
poor? Why should we retire soldiers after such short service? And
these scholarships –I do not see the point,” paced Emperor
Ruizong from the privacy of his apartment.
Empress Wu stood proudly, the enormous sleeves of her imperial gown
blowing in the light breeze coming into the chamber from its open
windows, “Because these policies benefit all the people, not just
those born to wealth and privilege.”
“But you were born into a wealthy and powerful family,” protested
Ruizong, “without that you would not be here.”
“That is true. But is that just? Should women and men born to
prosperous families gain the blessings of our rule and policies? Is
poverty a fate that can never be escaped? Surely not! The reforms I
have put in place in first your father’s name and now in yours have
made our country wealthy, safe, and strong. We are the envy of the
entire world. Foreigners travel hundreds of li and brave many
dangers so as to learn from us and are taking our customs, our
policies to their homelands. We are stronger and more prosperous
through our good governing than the greatest of military empires.
Without these policies we would be no different than the barbarians
from Europe who conquered many lands only to fall because their
mistreatment of the common people led to their demise.”
“Since when are justice and government one and the same?”
“Er zi, you know I am a Buddhist. But that does not mean I am
ignorant of the Dao. Laozi said, ‘…the
humble is the root of the noble. The low is the foundation of the
high.’ It is wise to be just and wiser still to govern based on
what is best for the humblest among us. Treat the people well and
you will stay in power. But treat them as the falcon treats the
parrot, as nothing more than food to use and kill to fill your own
belly, and what you do will not endure. What I have done my whole
life will endure. I will be remembered for the good I have done.
Can any emperor say the same? Do we not remember Qin She Huang whose
tomb lies beneath this city for his cruelty? He united our people
and gave us a standardized written language but he did it by hurting
others and killing without regard for who he hurt.”
Ruizong scowled, grateful for the
privacy of their conversation, “You’ve killed. How many of your
own family are not dead because of you? Will you not be judged just
as harshly as we judge Qin She Huang?”
“Yes, I have killed and ordered
the deaths of many. I confess that to you as the Son of Heaven. In
many ways, I am no different than any royal in this imperial city. I
did what I needed to do in order to secure power for myself. I do
not deny it.
“But I have not sought power for
the sake of power. I have sought power so I can make life better for
others. In this I have succeeded. Despite the efforts of
philosophers determined to take away the rights of women under the
law I have given both women and men an equal chance at education and
employment. Fewer people suffer now on a daily basis and fewer
people are hungry or sick now than ever before, even though there are
many more people alive today than when I first came here fifty years
ago as Taizong’s cai ren. I am not proud of everything I have done
in my life. But I am proud of the way I have influenced our
government and the decisions I have made in the names of both you and
your father,” declared Empress Wu.
“You really think you are the
equal of men, don’t you?” accused Ruizong.
“I am brighter, more educated,
and far wiser than most men, yes.”
“As your son, I honour you as my
mother. But I am still your emperor and I am still your lord and
master! You will do as I say and you will interfere no longer in
matters of state. As of right now, I rule in my own right!”
Wu feigned obedience, “As you
wish, Your Majesty. May I leave now?”
“You are dismissed,” growled
Empress Wu bowed, “Xiexie.”
Pretending to cower away from him, she slipped quietly out of his
apartment and back to her own where the soldier who helped her depose
Emperor Zhongzong waited for her. The soldier bowed as she addressed
him. “Did you hear all of my conversation with the Son of Heaven?”
“I did. What do you wish of me?”
“Gather together those loyal to
me from across the realm. We will depose this petulant child –
slowly and without anyone knowing what we are doing.”
“You wish him poisoned to death?”
“No, leave him alive. Let him be
the last emperor of the Tang dynasty.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“A new dynasty from a new
capital. Let Luoyang serve as my capital under my control. I will
call it the ‘Zhou’ dynasty and I will rule it myself as emperor
with Buddhism as the official religion of China.”
“You will rule in your own right
“With all the power and
privileges of any male emperor – including those of the bed
“If you go so far, people will
judge you,” warned the soldier.
“Let them. The people benefit
from my government. Their bellies are full and their sons no longer
die in war. They are better educated and have more freedom of speech
under my rule than any generation has enjoyed from the beginning of
time. The people will be glad to have me as emperor. Mark me: what
I do and plan to do shall change their lives and the lives of
countless generations more than any other ruler in China. Even if
they forget my name, they will live my legacy forever.”
Two years later fireworks sounded across Luoyang as Empress Wu
triumphantly entered her new capital. With much pomp and
circumstance a Buddhist master placed the imperial crown on her head,
“In the name of Heaven and Earth and guided by the wisdom of
Buddha, I crown you emperor!”
Humbled for the moment by her triumph, Wu Zhao met the shifu’s eyes
before turning to the nearby crowds watching and listening to her
coronation, “’May the merit of
my practice adorn Buddhas’ Pure Lands, requite the fourfold
above, and relieve
the suffering of
the three life-journeys below.
Universally wishing sentient beings, friends, foes, and karmic
creditors, all to activate the Bodhi mind,
and all to be reborn in the Land of
Ultimate Bliss.’ All the reforms I have made in the name of others
I shall expand upon. Gone are the days where the people labour and
suffer to serve the selfish wants of those who have more than they
need. In this sacred place where the sage gave us the Dao de Jing
and more than one million people dwell, where the greatest poets and
writers wrote and continue to write their master pieces and where the
Silk Road enters our empire, here, in this city we are a beacon of
light to the world. For here, for the first time in human history we
declare the equality of women and the right of women to rule over all
people – rich and poor, mighty and feeble, foolish and wise, male
and female, Buddhist and Daoist. What say you my people? Will you
stand with me?”
A woman with her daughter in her arms worked her way to the front of
the crowd, “I will!” Falling to her knees she bowed her forehead
to the ground in reverence, “Huangdi wan sui!”
Impressed by her courage more people fell to their knees to bow
before their emperor, “Wan sui!”
“Wan sui! Wan sui!” echoed the rippling crowd as more and more
people heard the empress’ speech repeated, each falling to their
knees and bowing with their heads to the ground out of respect.
As the bowing crowd passed over one thousand Empress Wu blinked with
amazement, tears of joy falling from her eyes, “Praise Buddha, I
have done it!”
Captain Richard James Mann held Hua-Lin’s hands, his breath taken
away by the story, “Then what happened?”
“Empress Wu ruled as empress regnant for eight years from Luoyang,
enjoying all of the power and privileges granted to male emperors of
China before returning to Chang An and restoring the Tang dynasty
just months before her death. Those who were displeased that a woman
dared rule over men were especially unhappy that she kept men as her
concubines just as Taizong once keep hundreds of women as his
“A woman had sex with multiple men?” asked Captain Mann.
“What is so scandalous about that when men of power from across
history have indulged in these things with whatever women they
desired –married or not? I heard it spoken that there have been
kings of England who kept male lovers. So why judge Empress Wu for
doing any different from what men of power do?”
“You cannot be serious! Women and men are different!”
“Are we? Does not your United Kingdom have a queen regnant now?
“Queen Victoria is our queen, but she does not make the day to day
decisions of ruling the empire. That is done by our prime minister
William Ewart Gladstone of the Liberal Party, a man absolutely hated
by another of our great statesmen, Benjamin Disraeli.”
“Are you saying that your queen is not responsible for the wars and
humiliations my people have suffered at British hands?”
Captain Mann rose to study the beautiful room around him, “On some
level, perhaps she does bear responsibility—but the decision to go
to war, to take this beautiful place from China and from you
personally was not made by her, no. I wish with all my heart I could
undo what was done. I wish I could wipe away all the opium dens and
make true reparations to you and to the emperor for all of this. But
alas, I cannot. I am a simple soldier, my lady. My duty is to follow
orders, to do as those above me command.”
“Many terrible acts of violence come from soldiers simply doing
what they are told, Captain,” reminded Hua-Lin.
“Oh please do not call me that! Call me Richard, I beg you!”
Hua-Lin rose and took his hand, “Richard, you cannot blindly obey
orders, not if you honour and respect my people. If you think this
Arrow War will be the last act of aggression against my homeland, you
are certainly mistaken. Serve your country, but not at the expense
of your soul. In China people have blindly obeyed tyrants because
the teachings of Confucius say that disobedience is the greater sin.
Perhaps that is another reason why so many who follow the teachings
of Confucius have such a low opinion of Empress Wu. She dared say
that doing what is right is more important than doing what you are
told. When the world said that women are lesser to men, she dared
show them otherwise.”
“Just like Queen Boudicca did one thousand eight hundred years
ago,” remembered Captain Mann.
“Yes, exactly like that. Your Boudicca led armies into battle.
Empress Wu Zetian led a different sort of army: an army of scholars.
Thanks to Empress Wu’s reforms in education, in the civil service
examination system, and in how people are hired for good paying
government jobs China became a meritocracy. Education took centre
stage in our culture, allowing for the many technological and
cultural advances that have made us the envy of the world. There is
not one person on this Earth who is not affected by her years of
public service and by her wise rule.”
“She really was the brightest and wisest of your people,” agreed
“There are people who are smarter, more educated, perhaps wiser in
China and around the world. But this no one can deny: the world is
a better place because she dared defy traditional ideas of womanhood.
She dared do what is right, not just for herself, but for all
598 CE 28th January Birth of Li Shimin (李世民)
to Li Yuan, a chancellor in the Sui dynasty.
618 CE Li Yuan overthrows the Sui dynasty and founds the Tang dynasty
as Emperor Gaozu
624 CE Birth of Wu Zhao in Wenshui County in Shanxi province to Wu
626 CE 4th September Li Shimin succeeds his father as
628 CE 21st July Birth of Li Zhi (李治)
to Emperor Taizong and Empress Zhangsun.
638 CE Wu Zhao enters the imperial city as Cai Ren (5th
rank concubine) to Emperor Taizong before assuming duties as one of
the emperor’s secretaries.
649 CE 10th July death of Emperor Taizong. Ascent of Li
Zhi as Emperor Gaozong shortly after.
651-652 CE Wu Zhao summoned to Gaozong’s court and made Zhao Yi
(2nd rank concubine).
652 Wu Zhao gives birth to her first son, Li Hong
653 Wu Zhao gives birth to her second son, Li Xian (李賢).
654 Wu Zhao gives birth to a daughter. Empress Wang’s proximity to
the baby right before she is found dead makes the palace suspect Wang
murdered the child.
655 CE Wu Zhao made Empress of China by Gaozong Emperor. Empress Wang
and Consort Xiao are murdered.
656 CE Wu Zhao gives birth to third son, Li Xian (李顯),
also known as Li
660 CE Gaozong Emperor suffers crippling stroke; Wu Zhao takes over
government administration as de facto ruler.
662 June 22. Empress Wu gives birth to Prince Li Dan (李旦),
the future Ruizong emperor
675 CE Empress Wu commissions, “Biographies of Famous Women”
683 CE 27th December death of Emperor Gaozong. Li
684 25th January. The year of the monkey begins.
684 CE February Wu Zhao deposes Emperor Zhongzong and replaces him
with her fourth son, Li Dan who ascends the throne as Emperor
690 CE Wu Zhao declares herself emperor of the new Zhou dynasty,
moving the capital from Chang An to Luoyang.
698 CE Empress Wu reinstates the Tang dynasty, moving the capital
back to Chang An and making Li Xian (Emperor Zhongzong) her crown
705 CE A palace coup d’état deposes Empress Wu. Zhongzong Emperor
restored to power. Empress Wu is given the title “Zetian.”
705 CE December death of Empress Wu.
710 CE Emperor Zhongzong (Li Xian李顯)
716 CE former Emperor Ruizong dies.
Emperors of the Tang Dynasty